Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Much ado about reservation

Image credit: Praeep Yadav

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Based on the aspiration of the constitution of Nepal, the government took a step towards making the bureaucracy a little less exclusionary than in the past. The Civil Service Act-1993 was amended in 2007 to ensure 55 percent of seats be filled through open competition and 45 percent from reservation. Of these seats, 33 percent would be reserved for women, 24 percent for Aadibasi/Janajatis (Indigenous/Ethnics), 20 percent for Madhesis, 9 percent for Dalits, 5 percent for people with disabilities, and 4 percent for candidates from neglected regions (people from disadvantaged districts in Karnali (basically Khas/Chhetris/Thakuris/Dalits). Out of 45 percent reservation, the largest percentage of new jobs in the civil service went to Brahmins (22.96) and Chhetris (18.67).

Last week, a division bench of Supreme Court Justices Bishwambhar Prasad Shrestha and Ananda Mohan Bhattarai passed a verdict saying that reservation in government service should be made on the basis of necessity and not on the basis of caste and ethnicity. They stated that "the goal of the constitution can only be achieved if the reservation system is focused on needs rather than on caste or ethnicity". According to the justices, reservation did not reach the needy people and was mostly occupied by the upper class and opportunist middle class people. The decision of the Supreme Court states that the principle of reservation should be under positive discrimination and the existing system should also be amended. The decision states that a person should not have more than one reservation.

Reservation is a kind of compensation to women, Dalit, Madhesi, Janajati and disabled groups who were historically marginalized and dominated in the name of sex, race, caste, ethnicity, disability and on the basis of geography. For many centuries, Dalits have been discriminated. As a consequence, they are far behind in comparison to so-called upper caste people. Data shows that Dalits’ poverty rate is 41 percent against the national average of 25.16 percent. Literacy rate of the Dalits is 34 percent in contrast to the national average of 54 percent. Their life expectancy is 50.8 years as against the national average of 59 years. The mortality rate for less than five years is 90 per thousand, whereas the national average is 68 per thousand. Also, the per capita income of the Dalits is US $977 per year, whereas the national average is US$ 1597 per year, which is one of the lowest in the world.

Reservation is a kind of compensation to women, Dalit, Madhesi, Janajati and disabled groups who were historically marginalized and dominated in the name of sex, race, caste, ethnicity, disability and on the basis of geography.

Furthermore, 23 percent of the Dalits are landless, while 48.7 percent have less than 0.1 hectares of land. For those who have land, cultivable land is less than 1 percent. The Human Development Index (HDI) of the Dalits (0.424) is the lowest in Nepal and considerably lower than upper-caste Bahun/Chhetri (0.552) and Newar (0.616) as well as of Janajati (0.494), the indigenous communities of Nepal whereas the national average of HDI is (0.509).

Presently, reservation is becoming an instrument for another level of caste domination. Indeed, reservation could never solve the economic problem of the impoverished majority. It is also true that reservation policy is benefitting the elites within the Dalit community and other groups such as women, Madheshi, Janajati and people from underprivileged geographical locations.  The reservation was aimed to induct the excluded groups like Dalit people in all state mechanisms to reduce the monopoly of the so-called upper caste people who are manipulating the state law and orders against Dalits.

The empirical data clearly shows that the police personnel, judges, bureaucrats and most of the all-top-level posts are occupied by the so-called upper-caste people. Reservation system holds the potential of breaking down the Brahminical ideology of caste superiority that prevented Dalits from commanding respect in society. As per the UN report 2020, it has already been 15 years of the announcement (an untouchable discrimination-free nation in 2006) that no human being will be discriminated against based on caste but the practice of caste-based discrimination is frightening in Nepal. 

The Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability (Offence and Punishment) Act, 2068 (2011) has also strictly prohibited caste-based discrimination in Nepal. In 2020, the UN conducted a research in Province no-2, Karnali Province, and in 16 districts in Sudurpaschim province and found five different types of harmful practice (caste-based discrimination). According to the research report, 97 percent of Dalits experienced caste-based discrimination in their locality or society.  About 74 percent of Dalits reported that they are not allowed to enter the kitchen of upper caste people. Similarly, about 52 percent of Dalits are not allowed to use water from the public taps. About 50 percent of Dalits are not allowed to enter Hindus temple even though most of the Dalits have been following Hindu religion since the beginning. About 41 percent Dalits experience difficulties to sell their milk in the market. About 70 percent Dalits do not register their case of caste-based discrimination at the nearby police station because most of the upper caste police personnel do not want to register Dalits' cases. About, 67 percent of Dalits reported that no inter-caste marriage is possible in their society.

Those who want reservations to be based on economic position (class) argue that the reservations based on caste are creating and intensifying social barriers and leading to stigmatized identity.

Those who want reservations to be based on economic position (class) argue that the reservations based on caste are creating and intensifying social barriers and leading to stigmatized identity. To make it clear why caste-based reservation is needed instead of class, the scribe would like to ask the reader to visualize a Brahmin and Dalit family residing in the same village, same environment, having similar economic status and family members. After visualizing their poor status, you as a donor provide a similar number of milk-giving buffalo to both families to enhance their economic condition. Now you guess, which of the two families will enhance their economic conditions in a short period and why? (To guess or visualize this, readers must be aware of the Hindu caste system or social and religious system).

The answer is very simple, the Brahmin poor family will become economically stronger in a short period in comparison to Dalit family because of caste privilege and social capital of Brahmin family, while Dalit family will not upgrade their economic condition that quickly because upper caste people will not buy Dalits' milk. Dalit family have no better social capital and no caste privilege in the market. The caste system is a social system and the class system is an economic system. The upper caste gets privilege in the market while the lower caste does not if we provide class-based reservation.

The reservation or quota system is provided to Dalits because of age long caste-based discrimination.

I also want to make clear that reservation for Dalits is not for their poor condition. The reservation or quota system is provided to Dalits because of age long caste-based discrimination. Inequity is not only a matter of economics, it is a social matter. Economic poverty of Dalits is the impact of age-long social exclusion. So, reservation is for social inclusion, inclusion in education, civil service, judiciary, armed force, and politics. It is also true, no matter how Dalits make economic progress, caste-based discrimination will continue. The issue of Dalit is not only economic, it is social and political as well.

It is about to be two decades of reservation but Dalit representation is very poor. Nepal’s judiciary and other state institutions lack adequate representation of Dalits and women. Among 519 public prosecutors, only seven (1.3 percent) are Dalits. In 2017-18, there were 394 judges at the Supreme, High, and District Court levels. In these courts, Dalit judges comprised only 0.5 percent of all judges. Recently, one Dalit judge was appointed in the High Court and a Dalit judge in the district court. There are no Dalit judges in the Supreme Court. As per the 60th annual report of the Public Service Commission, there are just five (1.09 percent) judges from Dalit community out of 459 judges. This is the same story in other sectors as well.

The recent controversy about refusing rented room to a Dalit woman, Rupa Sunar, generated awful memes and slogans in Nepal's social media circle. The so-called upper-caste people mocked Rupa and other Dalits by saying "You didn't get kotha (room), I didn't get quota". This trivialization of Dalits' plight depicts the sickness of Nepali society.

Reservation system is not unique to Nepal. Throughout the world, many countries like India, Malaysia, the US and others are practicing reservation. Reservations are a necessary measure to ensure representation, recognition, and democratize the public institutions and fight against the malaise of caste discrimination. 

The verdict of Supreme Court is questionable. Class-based reservation is risking the process of Dalit participation in the mainstream. The aim of the reservation was to compensate the historical discrimination against Dalit community. Reservation system has aimed for social inclusion.

Political parties should make caste and equity their prime agenda.

Political parties should make caste and equity their prime agenda. The only political party that I have come across is Scientific Communist Party of Nepal which has made caste system “Jaat Bebastha” one of their agendas.

Today, reservation is a necessary remedy for discrimination against Dalits but it does not still cure “past” exclusion from rights to property and education. Compensation is the appropriate remedy for the latter form of discrimination. Instead of being against Dalits, upper-caste people must be educated on refraining from continuing discriminatory and torturous practices against Dalits. Only this can help do away with the need for a reservation. At last, if the reservation is not the solution to Dalit’s problem, then, within the existing mechanisms, what else can ensure the entry of Dalits in state services?

Published on 10 August 2021

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